International patents specialist, Jim Kinnier-Wilson, has been interviewed by the BBC Radio 4 programme, You and Yours, for its story on fuel cell car technology. The latest entrant to this emerging market is a Toyota car which is fuelled by hydrogen and emits nothing but pure, drinkable water from its tail pipe. Production of the car has begun in Japan and the company has already taken 1,500 orders including one from the Japanese prime minister. 

The challenge for companies such as Toyota and electric car manufacturer Tesla is the dearth of refuelling stations with the appropriate technology. For example, when the Toyota car comes onto the UK market in September 2015, there will only be 15 locations – mainly in the South East – for owners to refuel their cars. Tesla and Toyota have therefore taken the highly unusual approach of giving third parties royalty-free access to their fuel cell refilling patents and royalty free licences for the balance of their 5610 fuel cell technology patents until 2020. 

In summer 2014, Tesla announced that it would not sue anyone who used its patents in good faith to develop the Tesla technology. By enabling others to use Tesla technology, Tesla would have the opportunity to supply the batteries for other electric cars and, as one commentator put it at the time: “It’s better to have 50% of something than 100% of very little”. 

On You and Yours, Jim explained why Toyota’s – and Tesla’s – decision is so “very unusual” and marks a significant change to the fundamental practice of patent law. “The whole point of patent law is to give a monopoly to the company that developed the technology and one would normally expect that company to offer licences to its expensive technology for a significant price. But, in this instance, Toyota needs third parties to invest in establishing hydrogen refuelling stations in order to have a chance at selling any fuel cell cars at all. Unless Toyota released the patents for free to other manufacturers, no one would invest in the infrastructure to support the cars on the road if all that was going to be available was one model of vehicle from a single car manufacturer.” 

Listen to the hydrogen cars story on You and Yours on Friday 20 February here.